“You have to understand, Dr. Carson. These children are different.”
“I’m looking forward to speaking with them.”
“No, you have to understand. These children don’t listen. They come from reservations and migrant farm families. They don’t pay attention to speakers.”
It was noisy and rowdy in the school auditorium in Yakima Valley, Washington, when the program started. But within a few minutes, you could hear a pin drop. Children who supposedly couldn’t pay attention were at the edge of their seats, riveted by their visitor’s words.
The visitor was Dr. Ben Carson, chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. He is now one of the most distinguished surgeons in the world. But as he told the children, once upon a time he lived in a tenement filled with roaches and rats. He lived with a single mother who worked two, sometimes three jobs as a domestic to pay the bills. He got zeroes on all his math tests, and he was taunted as the dumbest kid in class.
Fortunately, Ben’s mother had faith in Ben, and she set high expectations for his future. Though she couldn’t read herself, she taught him a love of books. Soon the same boy who was nicknamed Dummy was known as the smartest kid in class. He won scholarships and went to college and medical school. He made history in a 22-hour operation in which he was the first surgeon to separate successfully Siamese twins joined at the back of the head.
Dr. Carson told the children his story. And then Dr. Carson told the children that they, too, could excel. They did not have to be victims of circumstance. God had given each of them intelligence and great talents. Through hard work, honesty, and learning, they could make the most of their talents and succeed.
Dr. Carson connected with those children. Where most of them saw despair and hopelessness, he showed them a world of opportunity. They could think big about their futures.
Dr. Carson told us this story of Yakima Valley in his keynote address at the 2002 annual meeting of The Philanthropy Roundtable in Amelia Island, Florida. He challenged philanthropy to build a culture where children develop their intellectual and moral as well as their athletic and dramatic gifts. He showed us how even the poorest children can be inspired to discover their own strengths and to take charge of their destinies.
And not just children. Dr. Carson brought tears to my eyes when he described how his illiterate mother, who had sacrificed so much for the sake of her children, taught herself to read, went back to school, and earned her GED and a college degree. In 1994 she was awarded an honorary doctorate.
Dr. Carson’s speech in Amelia Island was not just inspirational. It was also a jeremiad. He reminded us that America comes in 21st of 22 countries on international math and science tests, and that we will not long remain the “pinnacle nation” of the world unless we cultivate the brainpower of all our citizens.
“Ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient Rome were also pinnacle nations,” he said. “They were the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world. Yet they were destroyed. What did them in? A culture dominated by entertainment, sports, lifestyles of the rich and famous. They lost their moral compass, the notion that there is right and wrong.”
The 300 philanthropists attending our annual meeting—foundation trustees and senior staff, individual donors, and corporate giving executives from 35 states and three continents—gave Dr. Carson a five-minute standing ovation.
Dr. Carson is himself a philanthropist. He and his wife Candy started the Carson Scholars Fund, which has given college scholarships to over 550 children in grades 4 through 12 who demonstrate exceptional records of academic achievement and humanitarian service.
The life and work of Dr. Carson personify what we at The Philanthropy Roundtable stand for. Our vision is an America where freedom and personal responsibility go together, and every man, woman, and child has the opportunity to develop his talents and pursue his dreams. Our mission is to help donors develop and fund programs that will unlock the potential of all our countrymen.
To learn more about Dr. Carson’s remarkable career and his “think big” philosophy, read his books Gifted Hands, Think Big, and The Big Picture. Or visit his web site, carsonscholars.org.
To learn how philanthropy can achieve dramatic breakthroughs in the expansion of opportunity and the strengthening of our free society, get involved in The Philanthropy Roundtable. Read our magazine and other publications. Come to our forthcoming conferences on K-12 educational philanthropy in San Francisco and New York City, our Washington conference on philanthropy and public policy, and our annual meeting in San Diego on November 13-15, 2003. Share your ideas, strategies, and philanthropic best practices with other donors who “think big” and share your dreams.
Adam Meyerson is president of The Philanthropy Roundtable.